The Legacy of Timothy Geithner


I had to reprint this article as I was completely taken by surprise that the NY Times could actually be objective enough to publish such an expose.

The Legacy of Timothy Geithner

As the problems escalated, Mr. Geithner came to stand for providing large amounts of unconditional support for very big banks – including Citigroup, where Robert Rubin, his mentor, had overseen the dubious hiring of a chief executive and more general mismanagement of risk.

By SIMON JOHNSON

“Too big to fail is too big to continue. The megabanks have too much power in Washington and too much weight within the financial system.” Who said this and when?

The answer is Peggy Noonan, the prominent conservative commentator, writing recently in The Wall Street Journal.

As Timothy F. Geithner prepares to leave the Treasury Department, most assessments focus on how his policies affected the economy. But his lasting legacy may be more political, contributing to the creation of an issue that can now be seized either by the right or the left. What should be done about the too-big-to-fail category of financial institutions?

Mr. Geithner came to Treasury in the middle of a severe financial crisis, a set of problems that he helped to create and then worked hard to prevent from worsening. As president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, starting in 2003, he watched over – and failed to defuse – the buildup of systemic risk. In fact, the New York Fed was relatively on the side of allowing large, seemingly sophisticated financial institutions to fund themselves with more debt relative to their thin levels of equity.

This was a major conceptual mistake for which there still has not been a full accounting. In fact, blank denial continues to be the reaction from the relevant officials.

Mr. Geithner was also in the hot seat as more explicit government support for large financial institutions began in earnest in early 2008. The New York Fed brokered the sale of failing Bear Stearns to relatively healthy JPMorgan Chase, with the Fed providing substantial downside insurance to JPMorgan, against potential losses from assets they were acquiring.

Mr. Geithner also acquiesced to Jamie Dimon, the chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, allowing him to remain on the board of the New York Fed even as his bank was suddenly the recipient of very large additional subsidies (the insurance for his acquisition of Bear Stearns). This was the beginning of a deeper public realization that there had come to be too little distance between some parts of the Federal Reserve and the big banks.

For some senior officials within the Federal Reserve System, the appearance of this potential conflict of interest was a cause for grave concern. Unfortunately, their concerns were ignored by the New York Fed and by leadership at the Board of Governors in Washington. The result has been damage to the Fed’s reputation and an unnecessary slip toward undermining its political independence.

From March 2008, when Bear Stearns almost failed, through September 2008, very little was done to reduce the level of risk in the financial system. Again, Mr. Geithner must bear some responsibility.

In fall 2008, Mr. Geithner worked closely with Henry Paulson – Treasury secretary at the time – in an attempt to prevent the problems at Lehman Brothers from spreading. They were unsuccessful, in fairly spectacular fashion. The failure to anticipate the difficulties at American International Group must stand out as one of the biggest lapses ever of financial intelligence – again, a responsibility in part of the New York Fed (although surely other government officials share some blame).

As the problems escalated, Mr. Geithner came to stand for providing large amounts of unconditional support for very big banks – including Citigroup, where Robert Rubin, his mentor, had overseen the dubious hiring of a chief executive and more general mismanagement of risk. (While a director of Citigroup, Mr. Rubin denied responsibility for what went wrong.)

Rather than moving to change management, directors or anything about the big banks’ practices, Mr. Geithner favored more financial assistance – both from the budget (through various versions of the Troubled Asset Relief Program), from the Federal Reserve (through various kinds of cheap loans) and from all other available means, including insurance for private debt issues provided by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.

In official discussions, Mr. Geithner consistently stood for more support with weaker (or no) conditions. (See “Bull by the Horns,” by Sheila Bair, former chairwoman of the F.D.I.C., for the most credible account of what happened.)

Mr. Geithner’s appointment as Treasury secretary in January 2009 allowed him to continue to scale up these efforts.

In retrospect, what helped stem the panic was the joint statement of Feb. 23, 2009, issued by the Treasury, the F.D.I.C., the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, the Office of Thrift Supervision and the Federal Reserve, that included this statement of principle:

The U.S. government stands firmly behind the banking system during this period of financial strain to ensure it will be able to perform its key function of providing credit to households and businesses. The government will ensure that banks have the capital and liquidity they need to provide the credit necessary to restore economic growth. Moreover, we reiterate our determination to preserve the viability of systemically important financial institutions so that they are able to meet their commitments.

Mr. Geithner is often given credit for pushing bank stress tests in spring 2009 as a way to back up this statement, so officials could assess the extent to which particular financial institutions needed more loss-absorbing equity. But such stress tests are standard practice in any financial crisis.

Much less standard is unconditional government support for troubled banks. Usually such banks are “cleaned up” as a condition of official assistance, either by being forced to make management changes or being forced to deal with their bad assets. (This was the approach favored by Ms. Bair when she was at the F.D.I.C.; her book lays out realistic alternatives that were on the table at critical moments. The idea that there was no alternative to Mr. Geithner’s approach simply does not hold water.)

Any fiscally solvent government can stand behind its banks, but providing such guarantees is a recipe for repeated trouble. When Mr. Geithner was at Treasury in the 1990s and Mr. Rubin was Treasury secretary, the advice conveyed to troubled Asian countries – both directly and through American influence at the International Monetary Fund – was quite different: clean up the banks and rein in the powerful people who overborrowed and brought the corporate sector to the brink of financial meltdown.

In Mr. Geithner’s view of the world, the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform legislation fixed the problem of too-big-to-fail banks. Outside of Treasury, it’s hard to find informed observers who share this position. Both Daniel Tarullo (the lead Fed governor for financial regulation) and William Dudley (the current president of the New York Fed) said in recent speeches that the problems of distorted incentives associated with too big to fail were unfortunately alive and well.

Ironically, despite the fact that the Obama administration failed to rein in the megabanks and allowed them to become larger and arguably more powerful, this has not helped the Republicans in electoral terms.

As Ms. Noonan puts it bluntly: “People think the G.O.P. is for the bankers. The G.O.P. should upend this assumption.”

This is a significant opportunity for anyone with clear thinking on the right – someone looking for a Teddy Roosevelt trustbusting or Nixon-goes-to-China moment. Again, Ms. Noonan gets it right: “In this case good policy is good politics. If you are a conservative you’re supposed to be for just treatment of the individual over the demands of concentrated elites.”

Recall that some grass roots conservatives are already there: House Republicans initially voted down TARP, the former presidential candidate Jon Huntsman’s plan to end too big to fail received widespread applause from many Republicans and a number of influential commentators, including George Will and Ms. Noonan, have advocated ending too big to fail.

This would play well in the Republican presidential primaries – and even better in the general election. Watch PBS “Frontline” on Jan. 22 for an articulate presentation of why serious potential financial crimes were not prosecuted during the first Obama administration, and think about how to turn these facts into political messages.

A smart candidate could even mobilize plenty of financial-sector support in favor of breaking up or otherwise restricting the too-big-to-fail financial entities. The megabanks have very few genuine friends.

The lasting legacy of Timothy Geithner is to create the perfect electoral issue for Republicans. Will they seize it?

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